Sometimes you don’t realize how much you needed a particular movie until you’re watching it.
That’s likely to be the case for more than a few viewers of A24‘s Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, director Dean Fleischer-Camp’s adorably clever feature based on the viral short films he created more than a decade ago with Jenny Slate (Obvious Child, Parks and Recreation). A blend of stop-motion animation and live-action filming, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On follows the adventures of its titular character — a one-inch shell with an eye and miniature shoes — as he attempts to find his missing family with the help of a documentary filmmaker portrayed by Fleischer-Camp.
Framed as an in-progress documentary of Marcel’s life in a human house with his grandmother, Connie, Marcel the Shell is part family-friendly comedy, part coming-of-age story. The film explores the world through its pint-sized protagonist’s eyes (or in this case, eye) as he navigates an environment that seems mundane to us, but is filled with elements both terribly dangerous and breathtakingly beautiful to a tiny shell in a big, big world. Along the way, Marcel and Fleischer-Camp find themselves dealing with internet celebrity (in a nod to the original short films’ viral popularity) and ultimately setting off to find the community of miniature friends and family who disappeared from Marcel’s life years earlier.
Marcel the Shell is a film that feels infinitely bigger than it is, due in no small part to how easily you become invested in the little shell’s hopes, setbacks, and happiness. Over the course of the film’s 90-minute running time, it feels like Marcel’s eternally positive, precocious outlook on life should start to wear out its welcome, but it never does. In fact, the little shell has a lot in common with Jason Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso character in that way: He’s relentlessly positive in a way you can’t help buying into, and once you do, the world begins to feel a little more tolerable.
That Marcel’s experiences resonate so well is a testament to Fleischer-Camp’s talents, as well as those of his co-writers on the film, Slate and Nick Paley, and maybe most importantly, Slate’s voice performance as Marcel. The actress imbues Marcel with a mix of childish innocence, wide-eyed joy, and the certainty that comes from believing the small bubble you inhabit is all that matters in the world. We watch Marcel deal with adversity and make his first, hesitant steps into the wider world, and Slate weaves a subtle tremor into his voice that gives him a depth well beyond what’s expected from a tiny, sentient shell, and ensures the story always remains more sincere than silly.
And yet, there’s plenty of comedy in Marcel the Shell, too.
Marcel’s musings on life, love, and the people he encounters are effortlessly funny and often wise beyond his years. Fleischer-Camp frequently plays the straight man to Marcel’s jokes, gradually becoming a character in the story he initially tried to only observe, only to be drawn in — like the rest of us — by the little shell’s infectious charm. His role, which never threatens to overshadow Marcel, affords the little shell plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the trials and tribulations so many of us face in our lives, and the fresh perspective he provides is often welcome and very, very funny. That he also helps Fleischer-Camp navigate his own emotional journey is another, quietly rewarding aspect of their adventure together.
While the film is filled with amusing moments (some likely to land better with adults, some squarely aimed at children), the way in which they’re often delivered — in Marcel’s quiet, conversational tone — creates a nice element of rewatchability of the film, too. Marcel’s fondness for 60 Minutes and the show’s host, Lesley Stahl, also creates one of the film’s funniest recurring jokes, which eventually leads to a payoff that’s both hilarious and cheer-worthy.
Sweet, sincere, and infectiously funny, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On doesn’t try to surprise you by being anything other than the film you expect it to be. What is surprising, however, is that the film it turns out to be is one you didn’t know you wanted.
Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On premieres June 24 in theaters.
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